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Dec. 15, 2019, 5:37 p.m. EST

Bernie Sanders goes to bat for minor leagues, fights MLB plan to cut 42 teams

‘Baseball is not just another business,’ Democratic presidential candidate says

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By Associated Press

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in January.

BURLINGTON, Iowa — Take Bernie out to the ball game?

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is aggressively opposing a Major League Baseball plan to cut 42 minor league teams across the country after 2020. Among the targeted are the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Single-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics in his hometown, Burlington.

Defending low-profile ball clubs in far-flung places more fervently than anyone in the crowded Democratic presidential field allows Sanders to potentially win over a largely untapped 2020 constituency: baseball fans.

Sanders briefly took batting practice Sunday on an indoor turf field as representatives from three small-town Iowa teams looked on: the Quad City River Bandits, the Clinton LumberKings and the Burlington Bees, the local club in this town on the Mississippi River. In August, Sanders played softball with reporters on the state’s corn field-ringed “Field of Dreams,” the set of the Hollywood hit of the same name. And he has tapped a former Harvard second baseman, Faiz Shakir, to run his campaign.

Sanders shed his signature suit jacket to take swings in a sweater over a dress shirt. With a staff member slow-pitching, the senator dribbled a few grounders to his left, then lifted a ball in the air in the same direction, before joking that he was aiming another grounder off his bat at CNN reporter who should have dived to stop it. After about six hits, he dropped the bat and said “OK, that’s it.”

“For all the major league scouts, if I don’t make it to the presidency, I’m available,” Sanders joked.

Taking the diamond demonstrated physical stamina for a 78-year-old who recently had a heart attack, while also letting Sanders press a larger political point about rich owners putting profits ahead of the national pastime. But it also shows off a softer side of someone most known to supporters and detractors alike for being a democratic socialist and backing progressive policy proposals such as “Medicare for All.”

“The guys who own the teams are billionaires,’’ Sanders said told The Associated Press interview earlier this week, adding that baseball “is not an institution that is hurting financially. And you can see that by, just in the last few weeks, seeing major league teams signing star baseball players for as much (as) $324 million.”

That refers to the New York Yankees recently signing free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole to a reported 9-year, $324 million contract.

MLB is negotiating a new agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors. The initial contraction proposal primarily would impact lower-level teams in short-season leagues. Sanders met last month with Commissioner Rob Manfred to decry the plan and the senator sent him a letter Saturday, arguing that baseball “has to be considered more than just the bottom line.”

“Baseball is not just another business,” Sanders said during the interview. “There’s a reason the president of the United States throws out the first pitch of the season, why baseball is considered a national pastime.”

After the initial Sanders-Manfred meeting, MLB issued a statement saying it “understands that we have an obligation to local communities to ensure that public money spent on minor league stadiums is done so prudently and for the benefit of all citizens.”

But it added: “MLB also must ensure that minor league players have safe playing facilities suitable for the development of professional baseball players, are not subjected to unreasonable travel demands, are provided with compensation and working conditions appropriate for elite athletes, and have a realistic opportunity of making it to the major leagues.”

Some minor league players have filed a federal class-action suit charging that many players earn less than $7,500 per year, violating minimum wage laws.

More than 100 members of Congress from both parties have signed a separate letter to Manfred opposing shutting down minor league teams. So far, though, Sanders is alone among the Democratic presidential hopefuls loudly opposing the idea.

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